By Alexander Pearson
The M1 “Abrams” tank is a third generation main battle tank developed by General Dynamics and currently used by the US Army. Replacing the Army’s aging M60 tank in 1980, the M1 was originally conceived for use in tank warfare with the Soviet Union. The first combat deployment of the M1 was in the first gulf war in 1991.
Since its introduction, over 9,000 M1s have been delivered in three base variants; the original M1 design and its upgraded variants, the M1A1 and the M1A2. The newest base variant, the M1A3, is currently being designed with first shipments expected in 2018 or 2019. The Army has a fleet of around 2,300 M1 tanks; the majority of which are M1A2s. 3,000 M1s are currently stationed in an Army depot near the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California in reserve.
The Army began refurbishing its M1A2 fleet to the newest M1A2 SEPv2 standard in 2007. The SEPv2 (System Enhancement Package – Version 2) includes an array of enhancements to the base M1A2 variant.
In 2011, the Army proposed freezing refurbishment of M1A2s to the M1A2SEPv2 standard between 2013 and 2017 in order to save money for development of the M1A3 variant. Congress ignored this proposal and increased refurbishment funding for FY2012:
- In May, the Army argued that $1.3 billion could be saved in the FY2012 defense budget if refurbishment work at the Lima plant in Ohio was frozen until the M1A3 variant became operational in 2017.
- The Army estimated that shutting down the plant and then reopening it would cost $800,000, whereas keeping plant production running would cost $2.1 billion.
- Of the 2,400 M1A2s, roughly two-thirds were already upgraded to the M1A2SEPv2 variant. 137 congressmen from both parties responded to this proposal by sending a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh claiming that the proposal would dangerously harm the country’s “industrial base.” Congress subsequently decided to include an extra $255 million in the FY 2012 defense budget to upgrade 49 M1A2s.
In 2012, the Army again proposed freezing M1A2 refurbishment. Again, Congress ignored these proposals and instead increased funding for FY2013:
- In February, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Odierno told the House Appropriations Committee that $3 billion would be wasted on refurbishing “280 tanks that we simply do not need.”
- In April, 173 democratic and republican representatives sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticizing the administration for ignoring the M1 industrial base and urging him to continue supporting their decision to upgrade more tanks.
- Congress decided to include $136 million in the FY 2013 defense budget for 33 further M1A2 upgrades.
The Army maintained its opposition to further upgrades in 2013. Again, Congress has ignored it:
- In March 2013, Gen. Odierno told the Associated Press that “if we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way.”
- In April, Deputy Director of the Army Budget Office David Welch restated the Army position when he said that “the Army is on record saying we do not require any additional M1A2s.”
- In May, 120 House members sent a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh stating they were “deeply concerned to learn that the Army has once again failed to fund production of the [Abrams] tank.”
- In June, the House Armed Services Committee earmarked an extra $168 million for further refurbishment in the FY 2014 budget request. This brought total funding for the M1 upgrade program to $346 million in the House version of the FY 2014 budget.
Congressional supporters of increased funding have consistently cited the need to maintain the M1 industrial base for US national security:
- Congressional supporters have argued that the Lima plant shutdown resulting from a freeze in funding would destroy the M1’s industrial base. Without a continuous production line, many of the high skilled workers will leave for other jobs, while subcontractors that supply materials and tools for the plant will go out of business. The US would be left vulnerable in an event of war and this, they argue, poses a national security risk.
- The lack of support from congressmen whose states would be less economically affected by a funding freeze suggests that congressional support has less to do with national security and more to do with pork-barrel politics.
- A quarter of the members who signed the 2012 letter to Secretary Panetta were from Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. A shutdown of the Lima plant would economically affect these states the most.
General Dynamics has intensified Congressional opposition through an extensive lobbying campaign:
- According to the Center for Responsive Politics, General Dynamics has donated $5.3 million to current members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and defense appropriations subcommittees since January 2001.
- 137 House members who signed the 2012 letter to then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have together received more than $2 million in donations from General Dynamics.
The Obama administration opposes further increases in M1A2 refurbishment funding:
- In May, the White House released a response to the proposed FY 2014 House budget. It stated that the administration “objects to the $321 million […] for unneeded upgrades to the M-1 Abrams tank.”
Sequestration requires US defense spending to be cut by $487 billion over the next ten years. This pressure will most likely strengthen the Army’s resolve to freeze funding for M1A2 refurbishment as it attempts to save money where it can for its higher priority programs. The sequester will also force many House and Senate members to review their past support as the cuts begin to hurt other areas of the budget which are of even higher value. These factors, combined with administration opposition, could spell an end for M1A2 refurbishment funding in the near future.